11 September 2009

Billy Marsh a Prominent Member of Omaha's Historic Bird Enthusiasts

In considering essentials of the bird history for the Omaha vicinity, there are the obvious two men with their prominence as news men writing their regular articles for the local papers. Less obvious was a local resident and family man, that nonetheless had a profound role among the regular watchers of birds at the various wild places formerly present around the river city.

Billy Marsh was known by Sandy Griswold and Miles Greenleaf. The latter wrote about Marsh's 50th birthday in 1917, and also featured the bird watcher in a "Bird Lore" column in an August 1931 issue of the Omaha Bee-News. The words he wrote which were in the paper may have changed during the passing years, but the essential, yet vital aspect of the character had not changed.

"More than 20 years ago there was an aggregation of comparatively young men who strode forth each Sunday on West Center street, rain or shine, winter or summer, to get great gulps of fresh air and to broil steaks and other larder over hardwood coals in Paddock's grove. A very popular member of this party, and considerably the most advanced in years — although that would be hard to prove even now — was Billy Marsh.

"In that outfit of hoofers were to prominent Omaha attorneys, a nationally known New York journalist, a millionaire, Billy Marsh and the author of these lines. There were 'strays' from time to time — but the aforementioned comprised the regular crew."

Greenleaf described Mr. Marsh as a "bird-nut," always carrying a pair of field glasses and the requisite note book for taking notes, a habit that originally started in 1886, and described by Greenleaf back in 1917.

"And those bird records, day by day, sweltering summer or howling blizzard — have been kept up through all these years by Billy Marsh and can be seen today at his home at 4157 Davenport Street. He is a successful and retired business man but the birds are still his buddies."

The sighting of a lark during a "mean January" was definitely "something" Greenleaf wrote with an understanding of this bit of significance.

"So Billy Marsh commenced in untold wonders — and has been doing so ever since. He never urges anybody to study birds. All he says, when he finds someone who appreciates the pleasure and value of walking, is" — "'If you like walking — birds add so much to the hike!'"

Greenleaf mentioned that he learned his own birding skills — which became a prominent subject for his extensive writings — from Marsh, as well as Dr. Solon R. Towne and aided by Prof. Myron Swenk.

Though Billy Marsh has not ever been a person featured in the bird history for Nebraska as presented by the state's ornithological society, his legacy is prominent in its own unique, and subtle fashion. Certainly if his notebooks were known, they would tell of bird species and places where they would never been seen during the historic era. The notes would convey features of natural history that will never again be a part of any outdoor enthusiasts time under the open skies.

The bit of written information available, conveys the efforts of a man dedicated to knowing the birds, and getting others involved in their study and appreciation. It is hard to fathom the many Sunday walks and the observations appreciated to an extent that so many notes were kept on the observations of such a multitude of outings.

The diminutive Marsh was a "big man" in the history of bird study for Nebraska, though his legacy has been little known and celebrated.

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